You’re hired! Maligned UK banks bring in apprentices

By Michelle Martin

LONDON, Feb 8 (Reuters) – High street banks in Britain, under fire for cutting thousands of jobs, are ramping up their apprentice schemes, opening up more than 1,700 starter jobs as Britain’s government tries to rally support for its own plan to tackle youth unemployement.

Barclays announced on Wednesday it would offer 1,000 young people apprenticeships this year. HSBC plans to take on an extra 688 by the end of 2012 to bring its total number of apprentices to 1,000.

Santander said it would launch a new training scheme for up to 50 applicants.

The placements on offer are dwarfed by the number of jobs being lost in the British finance sector – UK banks, insurers and asset managers axed 9,000 jobs in the final quarter of 2011, according to business lobby group the CBI, and a further 11,000 could follow in the first three months of 2012.

On Tuesday, UK Prime Minister David Cameron launched the bidding for an employer ownership pilot scheme which encourages companies to take on more apprentices by offering 250 million pounds ($397 million) in public investment for skills training.

A spokesman for Barclays said its scheme was not connected to the government’s. The other banks could not immediately be reached for a response on who was funding the schemes.

Youth unemployment in the UK rose above the politically sensitive 1 million mark last November for the first time since comparable records began. It rose again in the three months to November, taking unemployment for 16-24 year-olds to 22.3 percent.

The previous Labour government also tried to encourage apprenticeships, using a campaign fronted by British businessman Alan Sugar – also the host of the UK version of reality TV show The Apprentice, and known for his “you’re fired!” and “you’re hired!” catchphrases.

Barclays said it wanted to offer unemployed, unqualified young people a 12-month training scheme in England and Wales with the prospect of a permanent position at the end.

The apprentices will be paid 15,000 pounds ($23,700) and will also be eligible for a performance-related bonus, a source familiar with the matter said.

The launch of the scheme comes at a particularly sensitive time for banks, which are under intense public scrunity over high pay.

Barclays is due to report its preliminary results for 2011 on Friday, when Chief Executive Bob Diamond could come under pressure to give up any bonus offered, although scrutiny has been greatest at the banks bailed out during the financial crisis.

Last month RBS Chief Executive Stephen Hester and Chairman Philip Hampton waived their bonuses amid intense political pressure on these employees of the 83 percent state-owned bank to refuse the awards.

David Fleming, national officer at trade union Unite said he welcomed the banks’ announcements about apprentices.

“There is no doubt that urgent action is needed to improve the reputation of the financial services sector, Unite hopes that such a professional training programme will help with this,” he said.

The national minimum wage for apprentices is 2.60 pounds per hour, making the Barclays scheme look generous at about three times more before bonuses, although the national minimum wage for adults is 6.08 pounds an hour — equivalent to about 11,000 pounds a year.

Every 1 pound invested in apprenticeships brings a return of 18 pounds to the wider economy, data from the National Audit Office shows.

Paul Champion
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